Though Syria is set to dominate discussion at this week’s Group of Eight summit, leaders began the conference Monday with talk of a possible trade deal they said could create millions of jobs.
The first round of negotiations for a trans-Atlantic trade agreement between the United States and the European Union will take place next month in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said.
“I believe that we can form an economic alliance as strong as our diplomatic and security alliances,” he told reporters after the leaders of eight of the world’s most powerful nations kicked off their meeting in Northern Ireland.
“The whole point of this meeting … is to fire up our economies and drive growth and prosperity around the world. … There’s no better way than by launching these negotiations on a landmark deal between the European Union and the United states of America,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
Even as leaders heralded the economic boosts that a new trade agreement could bring, the specter of a more divisive topic loomed over the summit: how to end Syria’s brutal civil war.
Global leaders at the summit are poised to pressure Russia’s defiant president over his support for Syria’s government.
The conference comes days after the United States pledged to play a greater role in assisting Syrian rebels, citing evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against the rebels and his own people. The move was backed by seven of the eight nations represented at this week’s conference in Loch Erne, while Russia remains the sole G8 nation supporting al-Assad.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply criticized the decision to provide arms to Syrian rebels, referencing a widely circulated video of an opposition fighter appearing to eat the heart of a dead solider.
Speaking to reporters in London after meeting with Cameron, Putin warned against arming Syrian rebels “who kill their enemies and eat their organs.”
“Do you want to support these people? Do you want to supply arms to these people?” Putin asked.
The White House announcement last week that it was increasing the “size and scope” of its material support to Syrian rebels came after months of political debate over the U.S. role in the conflict. Great Britain and France, two other G8 members, were strong backers of the May decision to end the European Union arms embargo on Syria, and both countries asserted that al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons before the United States did.
Russia, however, has downplayed the claims of chemical weapons use, and Putin has opposed outside intervention into the county’s 2-year-old internal conflict. G8 leaders hope a unified front against al-Assad will help pressure Russia to end its support for the regime, which extends back to al-Assad’s father and the Cold War.
Obama and Putin will discuss Syria one-on-one Monday, the first time the two leaders will have spoken face to face since last year’s G-20 summit in Mexico.
“They clearly have a very broad agenda to discuss,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes noted, adding the pair would also talk about counterterrorism and arms control.
“It’s in Russia’s interest to join us in applying pressure on Bashar al-Assad to come to the table in a way that relinquishes his power and his standing in Syria, because we don’t see any scenario where he restores his legitimacy to lead the country,” Rhodes continued.
Other G8 nations have expressed similar viewpoints, calling on Russia to back United Nations intervention in Syria. Russia’s permanent position on the United Nations Security Council has made action through that body difficult for countries intent on removing al-Assad from power.
Before this week’s meetings, Obama spoke by videoconference with the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Germany to discuss “ways to support a political transition to end the conflict” in Syria, the White House said.
Cameron — who met with Putin one on one Sunday — said that during the videoconference, Obama said further intervention into Syria “should be done on our own timeline.”
“We have already taken some decisions in that Britain is helping to give technical assistance, training, advice, help, shaping, to the Syrian opposition, and we do that along with the Americans, French and others and will continue to do that, and we will take time to make these decisions with our allies,” Cameron said.
The White House has not yet publicly specified what exact steps it would take to support members of Syria’s opposition, though sources have told CNN small arms, ammunition and possibly anti-tank weapons would be part of the assistance package.
On Friday, Rhodes said further discussions with other nations were necessary to determine next steps.
“This is a fluid situation, so it’s necessary for (Obama) to consult with all the leaders at the G8 about both our chemical weapons assessment and the types of support we’re providing to the opposition,” Rhodes said.
The G8’s Syria discussions will come in a setting imbued with reminders of American diplomatic involvement overseas. The U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, created the current system of government in Northern Ireland and helped end the decades-long violence between republican and loyalist forces in the region.
Before the G8 summit officially began, Obama delivered remarks on the U.S.-supported peace process in Belfast, though massive security operations served as evidence of Northern Ireland’s still-shaky peace.
“It has been 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement; since clenched fists gave way to outstretched hands; since the people of this island voted in overwhelming numbers to see past the scars of violence and mistrust, and choose to wage peace,” the president said, promising U.S. support as long as North Ireland continues to pursue peace.
“We will always be a wind at your back. And like I said when I visited two years ago, I am convinced that this little island, that inspires the biggest things — its best days are yet ahead.”
Cameron, the host of this week’s conference, named the problem of tax avoidance by large corporations as a central issue for G8 leaders to resolve at this year’s summit. The British prime minister hopes to secure agreements among nations on sharing tax information, with the goal of ensuring global companies aren’t able to dodge tax bills.
The measure met resistance from firms’ chief executives, though Cameron said he’s willing to withstand corporate ire for a fairer global tax system.
“You don’t get anywhere unless you are prepared to give the lead and perhaps make a few enemies along the way,” Cameron said. “In setting the G8 agenda around trade, tax and transparency, yes, you are taking on some vested interests, you are taking on some difficult decisions. But actually will it help both the developing world and us in the West? I believe it can.”
While in Europe, Obama will also likely be forced to defend U.S. Internet surveillance techniques that were disclosed in a series of newspaper articles in early June. The intelligence programs, which were previously considered top secret, involved large tech companies who operate globally, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo.
Individual privacy online is highly regarded in Europe, but leaders there have faced a quandary in publicly condemning the American program called PRISM, which monitors e-mails, photos, search histories and other data from American-based Internet companies.
A robust intelligence-sharing network exists between some members of the G8 and the United States, and intelligence gathered through the NSA’s program has the potential to benefit other countries targeted by terrorists.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has nonetheless vowed to discuss the program with Obama during his visit to Germany and told CNN in an interview that other European officials are also concerned about PRISM. She said she wanted the greatest possible transparency on issues of surveillance and privacy.
The European Union — represented at the G8 by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso — also has “serious concerns” about the reported large-scale surveillance of online data by U.S. authorities, European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding said.
Rhodes said on Friday that the president would defend the programs, which also came under fire from civil libertarians in the United States.
“We certainly understand that — like the United States — countries in Europe have significant interests in privacy and civil liberties, so we will want to hear their questions and have an exchange about these programs and other counterterrorism programs that we pursue in the United States and in partnership,” Rhodes said.
Kevin Liptak and Catherine E. Shoichet | CNN